Herod Antipas, tetrarch in charge of Galilee and Peraea, didn’t know what to make of John the Baptist and seemed equally confused by his cousin Jesus. He had plenty of opportunity to meet and talk with John but met Jesus only once, during his trial. Herod had asked the question: ‘Who is this about whom I hear such things?’ People are still asking the same question about Jesus. It’s up to each of us to decide on our answer.
The readings at the 2pm SLT service on Thursday were Haggai 1:1-8, Psalm 149:1-5, Luke 9:7-9. The reflection follows:
Life as a political leader in the first century was precarious to say the least. Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great. Having a famous and powerful father was in itself a dangerous thing. Annoy him too much and your life could be cut short. This happened to two of Herod the Great’s sons who were supposed to inherit his kingdom from him. Unfortunately, in a family of five wives each with their own children, intrigue was the order of the day. The other sons didn’t like Alexander and Aristobulus and so set out to turn their father against them. Herod’s eldest son Antipater worked hardest at this. In 7 BC Alexander and Aristobulus were executed for plotting against their father. Unfortunately this did not help Antipater as he too was soon under suspicion and was executed a few days before his father’s death in 4BC.
Surviving family problems did not leave a leader safe from all threat of course. Herod Antipas was one of three sons who between them ruled what had been the kingdom of Herod the Great, hence his title of tetrarch. Archelaus ruled Judaea and Samaria but succeeded in annoying the people so much that a deputation of aristocrats from Judaea and Samaria travelled to Rome to warn the emperor Augustus that a revolt was inevitable if Archelaus wasn’t removed. Augustus listened to this advice and made Judaea and Samaria a Roman province administered by prefects, the most famous of whom for Christians is Pontius Pilate.
Herod Anitipas ruled Galilee and Peraea, this latter area being called the land ‘beyond Jordan’ in the gospels. In order to stay in power, I have no doubt that Herod worked very hard indeed. The walls might not have had ears but the city gates, the market places, the synagogues, the wells and other gathering places surely must have had. Only in this way would Herod be able to find out what was happening in his territory and work to head off any trouble.
I imagine it was this network of informers who brought John the Baptist to Herod’s attention. John baptised along the Jordan River for most of the time so he must have been doing so in Herod’s territory at some point. People flocked to John to listen to him and be baptised; this could so easily have looked like a popular movement for change which could have been a threat to Herod. Not only that, John also used Herod’s lifestyle as an example of how not to live. Herod had divorced his own wife in order to marry Herodias, the wife of his half brother, Philip. John pointed out that this second marriage was illegal. Herodias was not pleased about this, wanting him silenced, and in the end Herod had John arrested and imprisoned in the fortress of Machaerus in Peraea. John was beheaded as the result of Herodias’ efforts to get rid of him.
Herod had not executed John straight away after arresting him probably for two reasons. A popular leader being executed might have been the spark which lit the fire of revolt, probably the last thing Herod wanted. Having John in prison almost held him to ransom, making it more likely that his followers would not do anything foolish. In Mark’s gospel the second reason appears. We’re told that not only was Herod afraid of John (probably because of what might happen if he was harmed) but also that he knew he was a good and holy man and liked to listen to him. It’s hardly likely that Herod would want to listen to John condemning him for his marriage. What is more likely is that John was telling him the message about Jesus coming and the need to repent, the same message he was sharing with those who flocked to see him by the Jordan. We’re told that Herod was confused by what he heard but that doesn’t seem to have stopped him listening. Perhaps John was the only one who spoke the truth to Herod. Few would have taken that risk with a powerful leader; they were much more likely to tell him what they thought he wanted to hear.
We’re told that once Herod had executed John as the result of his foolish promise to Salome, he was sorry. Perhaps he had wanted to continue to listen to John. At least the possibility of a riot did not become a reality. John’s disciples simply collected his body and buried it. Although the fact that peace continued in his territory was probably a relief to Herod, peace within himself seems unlikely. Not only would he have had the guilt for marrying Herodias but also the guilt for killing John. Is there any wonder that when he heard about Jesus he was concerned and jumped to the conclusion that this was John returning to life?
Herod was not the only one who was jumping to conclusions about Jesus. The people were also saying that this was John who had come back to life. Others thought it might be Elijah who had never died but was instead taken to heaven in a chariot of fire. (At least this was marginally more plausible than Jesus being John, as both had been seen in the same place at the same time when Jesus was baptised). Others thought Jesus might be another of the prophets from of old. It seems that accepting Jesus as the Messiah was more difficult than accepting these far fetched theories. A little while later Peter, on the other hand, was able to see past all the strange ideas and declare the truth – Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God.
Herod’s response to all that he heard about Jesus was perplexity. He was puzzled and worried. It seems that Jesus caused a similar confusion in Herod to that which John caused. He wanted to meet Jesus. Maybe he wanted to talk to him as he had talked to John. A little later though, Jesus is warned by some Pharisees that Herod wanted to kill him, so perhaps he had made up his mind that getting rid of Jesus was the best course of action. Jesus doesn’t seem at all worried by this threat, heading for Jerusalem to die out of reach of Herod’s jurisdiction. Jesus was quite rude really, calling Herod ‘that old fox’.
That might have been the end of any possibility of contact between Jesus and Herod had it not been for the fact that Herod was in Jerusalem for the Passover when Jesus was being tried by the various authorities. On hearing that Jesus came from Galilee, Pilate sent Jesus to Herod as he belonged to Herod’s jurisdiction. Luke tells us that Herod was ‘very glad’ to finally meet Jesus as he had wanted to for a long time. It seems that at least one reason for wanting to see Jesus was to see him perform some sign, presumably something like Herod had had reported to him in the past. Despite Herod’s lengthy questioning, Jesus chose not to speak to him. Perhaps Jesus considered that there was no more to add to what John must already have told Herod. The interview descended into contempt and mockery.
Today many people find it no easier to accept who Jesus is than people did in the first century. It seems unbelievable that Jesus could be divine and human at the same time. So some say he was a good man, or a great prophet, or some kind of political leader, or someone who hoped to bring about revolt and disruption in Judaea and the surrounding regions. This still leaves Jesus’ miracles and his resurrection to explain. The explanations become more and more difficult to believe, probably more difficult than the simple truth as told in the gospels.
Herod asked, ‘Who is this about whom I hear such things?’ Listen to what C.S. Lewis has to say on the matter:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. … Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.”
Jesus was either ‘mad, bad or God’ and like Herod and Peter, it’s up to each of us to make up our own mind as to which is true.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor